Notes on overcoming writers block

I’ve been working on my novel on and off for a few years now. I write long hand for the most part so I’ve filled many a notebook. Every few months I reconnect with my work in progress, make some tweaks, write a couple of thousand words. And then I get stuck. So I put it down for a while.  Fast forward 12 weeks and the whole cycle starts again.

Determined to break my bad habits, I signed up for Penguin’s Overcoming Writers Block Webinar with best-selling author Guy Manikowski. I took seven pages of notes in all and came away feeling enthused and inspired.

A week on, I distilled my learnings like one of those fancy studies accounts on Insta. And I’ve even started to put them into practice. Here are five of my highlights for all you writers out there. And yes – a fair few of them involve notebooks!

1.  Make a robust plan

I know that writers tend to fall into two camps. Nanowrimo calls them planners and pantsers. Most of us are somewhere between the two I think. My usual method is to write until I run out of steam and need to take a step back and understand plot and characters but at some point, all writers needs to work out where the novel is going so why not start they way you mean to go on.

2. Keep a dream journal

I often dream of novel ideas and for the ten seconds after I wake up they feel crystal clear and Booker worthy. But then they fade away. Try keeping a notebook by your bed and writing down what you dreamed of as soon as you wake up. It’s a little like morning pages I suppose.

3. Organise your writing space

I tend to write anywhere and everywhere. I carry my notebook on the off-chance that the perfect scene will come to me. It never does by the way. I thought this was part of me making writing part of my life, but actually it highlights that I have no dedicated writing time. Discipline will help after the first burst of enthusiasm has worn off so for the next few weeks I’m going to write everyday at the same time in the same place. Even if it’s just for half an hour.

4. Avoid distractions

I’m easily distracted when it comes to my writing. And so I try to create the optimum moment. This is a list of some of the things I think I need to do before I can tackle my next scene.

– make/eat dinner

– write my next blog post

– tidy my craft room

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the webinar. And think I understand the issue.  I still see writing as an indulgence rather than a priority. I’m also guilty of thinking that the optimum time will lead to inspiration. Similar to the point on discipline above I suppose. If it’s important, it needs scheduling.

5. Keep the end in sight

I love the idea of visualising a final outcome to help keep up momentum. Mine is walking into Waterstones and finding a table dedicated to my book and the novels that have influenced it. Keep your writing dream front of mind. Or better yet, write it down. It makes it feel much more attainable I think.

How to live your best letter writing life

Last night I saw Letters Live. For the uninitiated, it’s a much loved letter reading event, which attracts all sorts of A-listers. The letters were by turns moving, poignant, laugh-out-loud funny and gloriously sweary. And best of all Benedict Cumberbatch was among the readers.

The rituals of letter writing

Letters have an enduring charm that email simply cannot match. I think it’s because sending letters contains an element of ritual. First of all assembling the tools, quality paper, envelopes, a fountain pen. The rules of composition, which salutation matches which valediction, dates and left indented addresses. And then there’s going to the post office for a stamp. I used to love the taste of the glue on the back. Yes, yes, I know you’re supposed to use the little sponge things now. But licking stamps remains one of my guilty pleasures- germs schmerms!

Letter love is common among stationery addicts of course. So, inspired by Letters Live I wanted this post to celebrate letters in all their diverse forms and usages. There’s so many ways to keep letters in our lives. Here are a few of my favourites…

Pen pal clubs

Recently, there’s been quite a few pen pal clubs set up. Quill London has a paid option  complete with quarterly socials and Proper Post has a matching service that I’ve been meaning to join for the longest time. It’s called Paper Planes.

Envelope art

Letter writing is often referred to as an art. But nowadays addressing the envelope is, too. It’s the perfect opportunity to get out the quill and ink, but brush pens work too.

There are some beautiful examples on Instagram. And Quill sell envelope guides and things. But there’s nothing to stop you just grabbing some Basildon Bond and giving it a go.

And it’s not just the direction that gives you a chance to express yourself. Sealing wax is a simple but effective way to add a touch of charm. I feel like I’m channelling Tudor insurgents when I use mine. Surely every costume drama ever has a scene where an important document is given an official seal in this way. It also ups the sense of anticipation for the recipient.

Stamps, too, offer a world of potential. Present and Correct have some beautiful ones. And those of you who’ve placed an order with The Stationer may well have received them.

Letters to self

Writing letters to others is all well and good, but what about letters to your future self. A while back I got a gorgeous box of prompts from Kikki K. It’s the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Epistolary novels

Slightly left-field, but one of the most enjoyable ways to consume letters on a page. My favourites are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

If you’re a fan of epistolary novels, too, you might enjoy this post I wrote to celebrate Write a Letter Day as part of National Stationery Week 2017.

Something letter-related that I’ve missed? Do let me know in the comments.

How to justify your stationery addiction

We all have people in our lives that for whatever reason just don’t get it when it comes to stationery. They are the ones who think it’s ok to borrow your fountain pen. Or who use generic notepads from the office stationery cupboard without even a hint of a shudder.

When they question why you need yet another notebook it’s tempting to cut them out of your life. But if they are a partner or a family member, that might not be an option. In the spirit of appeasement then, here are three things you can do to help them understand your addiction to notebooks/pens/paperclips (delete as appropriate).

One: Gamify it

Gamification is all about the application of game-design elements and principles in non-game contexts (thanks Wikipedia!) So this approach works well if your detractors have a competitive spirit. There’s not much that hasn’t been gamified by this point. Why not stationery addiction?

My suggestion, Notebook Bingo. Works for them. Works for you. What better way to ensure that you’ve got a good mix of brands and formats. Feel free to play along! I’ll call on Twitter and Insta.

Two: Call it a collection

A collection feels official, something that can and should be contributed to over time. Or that you might travel here, there and everywhere to build. Most importantly, it suggests volume and variety. A stationery addiction can be dismissed. A stationery collection – well that’s a horse of a different colour. And there are benefits to you, too.

When I started calling my towering pile of notebooks a collection, it made me think about them in a different way. I wanted to collate them, curate them and treat them a little better than I had done before. It became important to have a mix of different bindings, cover styles and page formats. And a dedicated place to store them.

Back when I was just someone who bought a lot of notebooks, I was less discerning. There was a lot of spiral bound, a lot of wide-ruled. There’s nowt wrong with that of course, but now I’m a notebook collector my purchases are more considered. And better quality for it.

Three: Convert them

I truly believe there is a stationery addict in all of us. It just needs the right item to awaken it. I used to have a particular penchant for animal-shaped pencil cases, before I graduated to notebook love. If there is someone you care about who doesn’t love stationery like you do, convert them. Find the one item of stationery that will make their soul sing. It might be something nostalgic, something useful or just plain fabulous.

This is the most intense of the strategies but the one that will pay dividends over time. Good luck!

Bonus option

Start a blog 😉 Can’t blog about notebooks unless you’ve got a whole heap of them…

Writing my future Stationery Story

The National Stationery Show over in New York this week has been hair of the dog to my National Notebook Day hangover. And by far my favourite part of it all has been following the Stationery Story hashtag in the run up to the Show’s opening day.

Through Stationery Story the NSS honour ‘the people who are the heart and soul of the industry.’  These short pieces tell the stories of inspiring stationery addicts who’ve made their passion their business.

Story time

There’s a Stationery Story from all the people/brands you’d expect. This includes two of my current favourites: Katie Leamon and Ben Treanor. The stories have been released at the rate of two or three a month. Confession, I’ve just binge-read a whole bunch of them. 

One of the most powerful is from Matt Nguyen founder of Jolly Awesome and now Paperboy London. Matt had little experience of the stationery industry when he first started out, but turned down an opportunity to join an existing publisher because he had total faith in his ‘hip hop animals’ illustrations. I think we can all see that his belief in himself and his work has paid off. It’s so inspiring.

The stationery addict’s dream

Like all stationery addicts I dream of owning my own bricks and mortar stationery shop. Unfortunately it would be nowhere near as hip as Present and Correct in Islington  – go check them them out now! But there’d be lots of pretty available – especially in the notebook section. So more or less the whole shop then as notebooks are my particular ‘thing’. Reading the Stationery Stories makes me think that there’s a small chance that it might be possible. Around 36% of exhibitors are new to the NSS this year. Of course I’d be buying rather than exhibiting, but that still counts, right.

There’s a quote about a dream being a wish without a plan or something similar. And as a graduate of not one but two Kikki K journalling workshops, I know that in order to make my stationery shop dream happen, I must start by visualising it.

To that end, I’ll spend this weekend printing out pictures from Insta for my vision board. As you’ll see, I’ve already planned out roughly what it will look like. In the meantime, I’ve drafted my own Stationery Story using the prompts on the NSS website. Maybe next year, I’ll be a genuine part of the stationery industry and able to submit my story for real.

A Notebook Blogger’s Stationery Story

When I reminisced with old friends about our school days, a lot of the moments I remembered were stationery-related. The time I received three St. Valentine’s Day cards – still not sure if they were all genuine. The time my pig-shaped pencil case was kidnapped and held hostage by the class clown. Poor Porky. He was returned safely in the end for a ransom of fruit pastilles. And the notebook that got confiscated by a teacher because I’d filled it practicing signatures in preparation for a proposal from my latest crush. 
Long after leaving school, I still bought stationery in line with the start of  every new school term. And my stationery hauls were legendary. At work, on the bus even, I’d find myself noticing and exclaiming over other people’s notebooks. From there my blog was born.

First stop NSS 2018

As I got more and more into the stationery scene, I wondered if there was a way I could follow my passion full time. I lacked the artistic skills to be a designer, but maybe I could curate a notebook collection on behalf of my fellow stationery addicts and share some of my favourites with them.
I located the perfect premises and set about filling my new shop with as many beautiful notebooks as I could find. My first stop was NSS 2018 and the designers and brands I found there formed my first edit. I’ll never forget the excitement of walking into the NSS and seeing all the booths laid out before me.
My shop has only been open for a few months, but I’ve started to build up a customer base. My advice to anyone like me who dreams of entering the industry is to just go for it. Be inspired by the stories of others who have gone before.  And make it happen by writing your own stationery story.
With grateful thanks to all those members of the stationery industry who’ve shared their inspiring stories.

In celebration of old, battered, used notebooks

The beginning of a new notebook is a fabulous thing. I think of it as the start of a new adventure. Even if I end up using it just for shopping lists. There’s only one thing better than the first page of a fresh notebook. And that’s the final page of a well-used one.

I’m not going to publicly admit to the number of unused notebooks I have. Or the ones I’ve started and not finished – there are even more of those. So on those rare occasions when I do get to the final page, I feel a massive sense of achievement. Sometimes it’s tinged with sadness, especially if it’s a really pretty notebook. But on the whole satisfaction wins out. And the notebook becomes precious to me however battered and dog-eared it’s become.

Used > new

It took me quite a while to come to the realisation that old and well-used was better than new and untouched. Don’t get me wrong: the brand new notebook is more aesthetically pleasing, but in terms of those that give me a warm fuzzy feeling it’s the ones that show the journey they’ve been on. I suppose it’s sort of like when artists say they prefer to paint portraits of older models because their faces contain more of a narrative. 

Anyhoo. To celebrate #nationalnotebookday I’m giving props to some of my used notebooks. They don’t usually make it on to Insta, but they are very much treasured. 

The one that’s got chunks of my novel in it

This is a fairly recent acquisition from Paperchase in Covent Garden. They’re actually all from Paperchase I’ve realised, but this one you can still get and it comes in a few different designs. If I remember correctly, the cover is hand-made in India. The paper is quite fragile and is disintegrating around the sewn spine and edges. But it’s got a wonderful feel to it and is fairly resilient to scrunching.

I’ve worked out that I’ve written roughly 5,000 words in this notebook. Admittedly a couple of hundred words of this is me copying out the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet. Wish I could remember why! I always write longhand to start and then switch to my computer once I feel I’ve nailed the tone of the scene. I’ve been working on this particular idea for a while now and it’s finally taking shape. To say that this is thanks to the notebook would be a bit of a stretch. But my enthusiasm to start using it and to use it for something where I was writing lots has definitely played a part. I hope I can keep up this sense of momentum for the next set of chapters.

The one from autumn/winter 2014

This one was in my bag for a few months a couple of years back. It was a handy size – big enough to work up a flow, but not too heavy. The school-style aesthetic still appeals to me and the elastic-band to keep it closed. The edges are in a bad way now, dented and torn, and at some point it’s come into contact with a blue biro with no lid.

The pages are filled with lists. Lists of locations of stuff in Ikea, lists of crafty things to buy from Hobbycraft, lists of ideas for Christmas presents for my family. There are recipes, too, some doodles and a sketch of the layout of my front room.

It takes me back to when I moved into my flat and spent hours in search of things to fill it and make it feel like mine. It’s already a touch nostalgic even though it’s not that old. Note to self: why do all the recipes I’ve written seem to involve peppers. Specifically yellow ones.

The one that’s got a bit of everything

I bought a couple of these, the other one is themed around Paris and is still untouched. The inside pages are lovely. Illustrations of black cabs run along the foot of each and in the top right-hand corner of each spread is a stamp with those lines you get from a franking machine.

I dipped in and out of this notebook over a year or so. At one point I was designing a blanket based on liquorice allsorts I remember, which explains the grouped bands of colours. The blanket never got made, but I might revisit it in the future. It’s got the germ of my current novel in it, but also a previous idea I played around with for a while and can’t quite let go as well as some ideas for a dissertation proposal. Again this didn’t go anywhere. 

My reflection is  that this is a notebook that contains lots of half-formed ideas that are yet to be realised. I think I’ll take it out periodically and look back to check in on them. The world definitely needs a novel with a hero called Cuthbert. And a lurid crochet blanket.

Happy #nationalnotebookday

Notebook and lyrics – no no notorious

So I’m feeling pretty damn proud of myself for getting my hands on one of these bad boys. The pink cloth binding. The gold foil accent. And who doesn’t love a notebook cover inspired by the lyrics of mid-noughties gangster rap?!

DESIGNWORKS INK – please can we have a whole range of these? Hope you don’t mind me sharing some suggestions…

Biggie ideas

Cover quote: Sicka than yo’ average
Artist: Biggie Smalls AKA Notorious BIG
Proposed format: cloth-bound in m
int green with gold foil accent, dot grid

I’d use this for recording stuff that goes well. For keeping a list of wins or achievements, if you will. I do win lists at work all the time. People laugh when I tell them, but when there’s lots going on it’s great to keep everything you’ve already achieved front of mind. And Yes, BTW, I am also one of those people that writes stuff I’ve already done on my to-do list just so I can check it off! 

Payday partay

Cover quote: 1st of tha month
Artist: Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
Proposed format: Leather-bound, with silver foil accent, lined accountancy-style

This would be for budgeting.The inside spreads would be designed for logging money in and money out. And could there be a ‘splurge and save’ section to note items you’ve splashed out on and where you’ve enconomised. Maybe the save section could have a little star by it as a reward. 

Write for this love

Cover quote: Do for love
Artist: Tupac
Proposed format: Cloth-bound in black with red foil accent, unlined

This would be a relationship journal of course! Maybe the inside cover could have space for two names under the ‘This journal belongs to’ heading and there’d be space to write up the dates you’d been on, where you went, what you did. And maybe a space to keep track of nice things or compliments given. It would come with heart confetti, red washi tape and picture corners so you could paste stuff in. 

In the mood for some old mixtapes now!

Novels in letters or should that be letters in novels?

A love of notebooks goes hand-in-hand with a love of lists – what else would you be filling all those pages with otherwise. I have several notebooks dedicated to the listing of things. So many in fact that they’re probably worth their own post. So today, I will focus on one in particular: the one especially for all the books I want to read.

I’ve actually got a few of these, including a fancy Moleskine passions one that’s got space for reviews and things. But this one is my favourite I think, mainly because I got it first and also I love the library card-style cover, complete with date stamps.

And why have I picked this notebook to talk about today? Warning, you’ll need to bear with me on this. Because it’s #WriteALetter day; because a lot of the books on my ‘to read’ list are epistolary; and because I was keen to fit in one more #natstatweek post. Tenuous? A bit, but the blogging bug has bitten me!

Creative correspondance

Epistolary novels, those written in the form of letters (though diaries and other documents also count) are my absolute favourite. I think it’s because of the intimacy you develop with the lead character, the sense that you’re privy to thoughts they’d share only with one or two other readers.

Of all the epistolary novels, the ones I know best are Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Clarissa – there, who said studying English Lit would never come in useful! These would be considered the classics of the genre, but those who like their fiction to have been published in the last 100 years or so will be pleased to know that it’s a form of writing that’s alive and kicking. Since the 90s, and not in date order, just what I’ve read and enjoyed, Bridget Jones Diary, Ella Minnow Pea, Who Moved My BlackberryThe Historian, Super Sad True Love Story, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. 

But back to my ‘to read’ list. Next up is The Guernsey Literary Peel and Potato Society. Yes, I know it came out forever ago, but I was saving it because everyone said how good it was and then I got distracted with lots of other lovely books. Now there’s a sense of urgency though because the film adaptation has just started shooting in Bristol. It will star Lily James from Downtown and is due out next year, so technically lots of time as the book is fairly thin, but while it’s front of mind, I’ll dig out the copy I bought.

Can’t wait to strike through this one on my list. Such a satisfying feeling especially as it’s been on there a while.

Happy #WriteALetterDay.

 

Signatures and school-girl crushes

If you’ve got a crush on someone it’s important to know if it’s worth pursuing. My 14-year-old self’s approach to this revolved around three key indicators:

The FLAMES test

This test was mandatory to understanding the longevity of any future relationship you might have with your crush. ‘F’ stood for friends, ‘L’ for lovers, ‘A’ for always, ‘M’ for Marriage, E for enemies, and S for, well, I’ll leave you to work that one out. It was essential that FLAMES was written out in capital letters. I didn’t know why then, I don’t know why now. The FLAMES method varied from school to school, but at mine it went like this:

  1. Write out your name, the word FLAMES, and the name of your crush
  2. Add up the number of letters that both of your names have in common
  3. Count each letter of the word FLAMES up to the total you reached in step 2, striking out the one you land on until there is only one letter left
  4. Reevaluate your crush based on this highly scientific insight into whether your love will last.

The loves test

We considered this test much more valid as it was number-based and therefore less open to interpretation:

  1. Write out your name, the word ‘loves’ (case optional), and the name of your crush
  2. Add up the number of times the letters of the word ‘loves’ appear in your name and the name of your crush
  3. Add the letters in pairs writing the total on a separate line until only two numbers remain
  4. This number is your percentage chance of have a successful relationship.

Anything over 80% meant that you were destined for eternal happiness. If the number was below 50% you could invert it to give the ‘true’ reading. Or not, depending on how much you wanted it to work out.

Finally the biggie…

The signature test

Practising potential signatures of my married name filled many of my notebooks when I was at school. Well if it was good enough for my heroine Catherine Earnshaw…

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Even if the other tests had good outcomes, a poor signature could ruin everything. It had to have a good flow, longer surnames were better for this purpose of course. And done in fountain pen for the requisite flourish obviously!

I hear that school kids are using Tinder now. Ewww. I think the days of the FLAMES and loves tests were a much simpler time, though that could be the nostalgia talking. Either way, I bet there’s still a fair bit of signature practice going on. Heck, I’ve even had a go myself with my current crushes in celebration of #SignatureSaturday

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A random thought. Maybe Cathy knew about the loves test and that’s why she chose Edgar rather than the whole ‘Heathcliff would degrade me’ business.  The numbers never lie!

Happy #SignatureSaturday

 

 

Notebook pilgrim?

One of my dreams is to download a copy of the amazing map Tessa at All Things Stationery created and travel the world visiting all the stationery shops it mentions. I’d buy a notebook at each one of course, and log all my travels in an adventure journal. The new Kikki K one would do nicely. 

I was talking about this idea at work, perhaps unadvisedly as I’d need to take off at least two years to get everywhere, and wasn’t sure how to describe it. Holiday didn’t feel right somehow, likewise trip didn’t quite convey the epic-ness of it all. Enter The Simple Things.  Apparently this sort of undertaking could be called a modern pilgrimage. Who knew.

Magazine fangirl

Now, The Simple Things is my favourite magazine. I buy it every month on the first day it comes out and on those occasions when I get to read it cover to cover with a cup of tea, I genuinely feel like I’m winning. But back to the April issue and Clare Gogerty’s article ‘The New Seekers’.

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What I’ve taken away from it, is that a simple walk or journey can be classed as a modern pilgrimage if your destination means something to you and/or you are engaged in some sort of search. If I undertook my journey I’d be searching for notebooks, and no doubt getting lost in various backstreets, but though it might sound trivial, I still think it qualifies because of what notebooks and stationers represent to me.

Stationers are a place of calm for me. I can lose hours browsing in Paperchase. And this is not hyperbole. I spent a whole morning in the Tottenham Court Road one once – but admittedly I got coffee as well as stationery! I like the thought that when I come out laden with new notebooks, I’ll be in some way different. More organised because I bought a new planner. Or more creative because I bought a notebook to capture my latest idea for a novel.

Every notebook an adventure

I see every notebook as an adventure in and of itself. A chance to connect and commit to thoughts, feelings, ideas and impressions. This is especially true of journals designed for the purpose, but also applies to notebooks used for creative writing, or budgeting, supermarket shopping lists even, if you look back in years to come.  Try and dig an old one out and you’ll see what I mean. Food fads, crazy diets – they’re like tattoos in that they capture the you of that specific moment in time. Though a lot less drastic obviously.

The act of writing in a notebook is special too. I took a calligraphy class last year and found forming letters with nib and ink as mindful as ten minutes on Headspace. Thanks to Lucy at Quill London for teaching me. But even scribbling something in biro can be profound.

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Maybe what I’d be searching for if I took that holiday trip modern pilgrimage is what would fill the notebooks, as much as the notebooks themselves. The people I’d meet, lots of fellow stationery addicts obviously, the things I’d see, the cultures I’d experience.

In the meantime, National Stationery Week has put together some ideas for a Stationery Crawl through London’s West End. Much closer and therefore achievable if not quite pilgrimage worthy.

By the way, the May issue of The Simple Things is themed Flourish – they always have a named theme. Back issues still available I think. Hurrah!

Once more with pen

When I was in primary school I insisted on writing in my notebooks in pencil in case I made a mistake. I didn’t want to spoil the pages with crossings out. And these notebooks were by no means exclamation-worthy stationery. This meant that sometimes I had to write out everything twice – the first time in pencil and then the second time, I’d trace over the pencilled words in ink. 

Lead and liberty

When I use pencil now it makes me feel nostalgic. The distinctive whispery scrape of lead on paper is as evocative of my school days as the smell of brand-new rubber plimsolls or the taste of pink custard. And knowing I can erase if I want to gives me the courage to be more creative. There’s a sense of freedom I just don’t get when I write with a pen.

Today I have some notebooks that are so fancy that even using pencil seems dicey. The thought of a misspelled word or an incorrectly placed heading is paralysing and so the pages remain pristine. 

I’ve got tens of notebooks that I haven’t written in yet for precisely this reason. Even a Wreck this Journal, whose sole raison d’etre is to be defiled and defaced with random scribble.

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To get my National Stationery Week celebrations off a good start, I decided to christen one of my unused notebooks. And in honour of #PenAndPencilDay, I wrote out one of my favourite poems just as I would have done back in school – in pencil first with pen over the top. It took a lot of the pressure off.

The notebook I chose was a leaving gift from former workmates. It’s A5ish, and a gorgeous rich burgundy colour. The lined pages are gilt-edged. And the smell of the leather cover makes me think of old books. It’s even got a ribbon marker. 

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I admit to feeling a pang when I wrote the first lines, but ultimately it’s satisfying to know that this particular notebook has finally begun to fulfil its destiny. Best of all, I feel fully justified in buying a replacement. The role of spare leather-bound notebook in my notebook collection is once again vacant.

Happy #PenAndPencilDay.